Serena Williams has always been one to break down barriers and push boundaries, so it is no surprise she is doing the same as she swings into motherhood. Williams gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., earlier this week, and as with everything she does, a media frenzy ensued. Questions swirled on why Williams and her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Kerry Ohanian Sr., named their daughter a junior after her father. Is this even technically allowed? Yet as Serena has shown us in the tennis world, anything is possible. With all the speculation over the naming of her baby, what does it really mean?
Naming traditionally holds great significance, since it relates to one’s family legacy and marks a way to pay homage to others. Yet this process has historically been skewed by gender, with most Western cultures passing names down through their sons, and reserving the junior title for male offspring. In some ways in today’s society, naming practices have changed for the better, with growing numbers of women brushing off the notion of giving up their surnames for marriage, and the array of female first names exploding with new possibilities. Yet naming a daughter after his father is not a common practice; personally I have never heard of anyone doing this. Just as she has done in tennis, Williams has signaled she plans to continue to break down barriers, especially for girls.
Looking at what Williams has said over the years, this should come as no surprise. She has spoken out against gender and racial inequality throughout her career, clearly defining her beliefs that change comes from action. Just last month, she wrote about her identity as a feminist and closing the gender pay gap, in particular about the damaging effects pay inequality has on black women. Therefore, we can see their naming of her daughter not as a political statement, but rather a step toward gender equality and social justice. Why would her daughter begin life restricted by societal norms and rules around who can and cannot be given certain titles?
In true Serena Williams fashion, she has given her daughter the gift of starting life with a legacy name. But she’ll also have an identity all her own as Olympia, as her parents are calling her. Olympia, a Greek word loosely meaning from the home of Gods, is a fitting name for a baby of superstar parents, who already has an Instagram account with thousands of followers and a Grand Slam title (Williams was pregnant during the 2017 Australian Open, which she won) under her belt. Naming her daughter a junior is pushing the boundaries of gender norms and sparking an important debate. Williams may have just broken another barrier.
Erica Chito Childs is an associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.